Monday, August 18, 2014

album review: 'the golden echo' by kimbra

In 2012, the world was rocked by a surprise indie hit that soared up the charts and remained there for months on end, a song that would ultimately become the #1 song of Billboard's year-end charts of that year, capping off a year in pop music that has held up surprisingly well upon re-examination. It was a level of success previously unknown to the artist and his collaborator, the former who had spent the previous decade quietly making very solid indie albums that had garnered him a fair amount of respect and critical appreciation.

Of course, the singer-songwriter I'm talking about in this case is Gotye, and the song is 'Somebody That I Used To Know', a song to this day I really like and yet can say it's not even the best song on that third album Making Mirrors. But while he works on his next record, let's talk about his collaborator on that song and the real reason why it works as well as it does: Kimbra, a New Zealand singer-songwriter who had released her debut album Vows in 2011. And having revisited that record... well, it's odd. Kimbra's blend of retro-glam breathy vocals was an odd fit against the aggressively chipper jazzy indie pop and over-expansive production, and when you throw in lyrics going for cooing lounge singer entreaties with a subversive feminist edge and an undercurrent of brittle instability, you got a unique and decidedly memorable performer. And despite a few missteps, I really dug the mess of contradictions that coalesced on that record, mostly because Kimbra was the sort of singer who I could still pull together a melodically interesting and lyrically nuanced track. 

So you can bet I was intrigued about her newest album The Golden Echo, especially considering the early buzz suggested the album was even more of a mess than its predecessor. So I took a look: what did I get?

Honestly, pretty much exactly what I expected... and yet somehow, a fair bit less enjoyable, at least to my perspective. Unlike Vows, where the mess at least felt cohesive and grounded by an artist who was a solid fit for the musical subgenres she was sampling, this album feels a lot more scattershot and unfocused. In other words, while I think I've got a firm grasp on The Golden Echo's intentions and themes, it's ultimately an experiment that doesn't work nearly as well. 

So let's get the main issue into the spotlight immediately, and this comes in the instrumentation and production, most notably the shift in style. Where Vows drew upon retro-glam of the 50s and 60s, a pin-up aesthetic that Kimbra could twist into something subversive, The Golden Echo goes for the R&B and pop scenes of the 90s, with callbacks to 70s disco on 'Miracle' and 80s pop on songs like 'Madhouse', especially Prince. Now immediately this places me in an awkward position, because I have never particularly liked most 90s R&B, in all of its schmaltzy, underwritten, borderline-cheesy presentation, but revisting Mariah Carey's early work did give me a little more appreciation for the era, at least in terms of production and the lush instrumentation and how powerful some of the underlying sincerity could be. 

And I can't tell you how awkward of a fit it is when Kimbra attempts to step in with her glitchier, characteristically unsteady and slightly askew production. Now in theory this could have worked - her brand of subversiveness worked wonders when cracking the porcelain face of early pop music, which had a lot of the same sincerity and high gloss - but 90s R&B is and the society that surrounds it is significantly harder to satirize musically, and many of the rough edges that Kimbra tries to interject feel tacked on and lacking in cohesion. Compare to Janelle Monae's attempts to show the darkness in this material on songs like 'Come Alive (War Of The Roses)', where she interjected elements of punk and hard rock to crack the facade. Kimbra tries something similar with noisy, more modern elements and there are some songs where it works, but more often than not, the mix feels overstuffed, clumsy, and lacking the deft grace of the source material. The noisy interjections of '90s Music' at least feel cohesive with the monstrous swell of the chorus, but the chopped vocal samples in 'Goldmine', the claustrophic and hollow production on 'Rescue Him', the painfully oscillating synth tone on 'Everloving Ya' against what sounds like a mid-range midi from a mid-90s adventure game, the inert keyboard tone 'Love In High Places' trying to go for an Asian-inspired melody in an overstuffed mix, these songs sound poorly assembled and have none of the driving melodies and force that used to give Kimbra's work energy. In fact, this is a much colder album when it comes to melodic progressions and energy, with only songs like '90s Music', the Passion Pit-inspired 'Carolina', the upbeat disco vibe of 'Miracle', and the punchy edge of 'Madhouse' giving this album forward momentum, most supported with great basslines courtesy of legendary bassist Thundercat - but considering this record already runs long, the lack of momentum is a big problem.

Fortunately, the lyrics do step up to do a bit of heavy lifting here, following in a similar line to Kimbra's previous record as a slyly winking satire of the genre she's embracing, less of the antiquated gender roles and more of the nostalgic feelings that accompanied that brand of music and how insubstantial or misdirected those feelings can be. And the opening three tracks are a strong salvo, undercutting the overheated teen love, the road trip to find adventure, and the 90s music that inspired it all and showing the confusion and uncertainty behind these choices. Of course '90s Music' doesn't sound like its decade, it's not supposed to, a sign of the shallowness in the past never really sounding the same or holding the same light now, leaving questions whether it was worth it in the first place. Those poor decisions, often rushed or played out too long are all over this record: inverted into dominance with the hookup but knowledge of inevitable breakup on 'As You Are' or the heady reserve of 'Love In High Places' or the 'ending of the chase' on 'Nobody But You' or the power trip of her useless and unfaithful lover's desperate apologies on 'Rescue Him', or played slightly more straight on songs like 'Miracle' or the coming together duet of 'Everlovin Ya' with American neo-soul artist Bilal. What's telling is how these songs are framed: Kimbra's lyrics indicate that her narrator can be all kinds of vindictive or cruel or making poor decisions or even delaying good decisions until it might be too late, something that R&B of that era rarely did. Hell, even album standout 'Miracles' is filled with images of 'surrendering' to the overpowering wash of love. But while there is nuance here, it often feels played all too straight to be considered direct satire or parody, with 'Madhouse' ultimately feeling like a 80s-inspired and less effective version of 'Come Into My Head'. The surprisingly highlight came with the album's closer 'Waltz Me To The Grave', a ballad with instrumentation reminiscent of Mariah Carey but lyrics with a thick gothic flavor that could have been written by Morticia Addams, with completely appropriate symbolic parallels that add a certain grave finality to this record that was definitely appreciated. 

But here's the thing, and it's ultimately what knocked this album down significantly for me: Kimbra's delivery. Her voice has always taken some getting used to, but I do really love her rich, low-to-mid range that can be brassy and emphatic and soulful - and yet she spends most of this record in her baby-voiced upper range and her inflection just doesn't sound good over this brand of R&B production. Her attempts at fluttering coos and R&B-inspired vocal runs just aren't a great fit over this production especially when it becomes smoother, as her voice frequently feels squeaky, thin, and borderline flat in this range, and the production doesn't often help. And look, I know it's part of her point, subverting the traditionally sweeping vocals of that brand of R&B, but it doesn't make it any easier to listen to, or any more tolerable.

Now I'll admit that part of my issues with this album are that I'm not the biggest fan of the subgenre Kimbra's satirizing - but on that logic, I should appreciate the satirical elements more. And lyrically and thematically, I definitely do... but at the same time, it doesn't make this album any less over-long, messy, thinly sketched, and lacking in truly potent melodies. I'm thinking a 6/10 and a tentative recommendation, more if you're a fan of 90s R&B and are willing to see a loose parody of it. As for The Golden Echo, it's not a record that'll sound like anything else this year, indie pop or otherwise, and I can appreciate it for that experimentation... but honestly, not for much else.

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